Wrestling was far from the only sport Paul Orndorff dominated during his career.
Years before the WWF produced numerous legendary vignettes of “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig excelling at various sports, Paul Orndorff was doing the same thing, only for real and without the benefit of reshoots and strategic video editing.
Whether it was amateur wrestling, bodybuilding, football, track and field, or even arm wrestling, Orndorff displayed a wide-ranging athletic aptitude that exceeded the capabilities of most men.
“There wasn’t a sport I couldn’t do or couldn’t master; that was my mentality,” Orndorff said during his acceptance speech for the Men’s Wrestling Award at the 2016 Cauliflower Alley Club Annual Reunion.
He later brought that same natural athleticism to professional wrestling where as “Mr. Wonderful,” Orndorff carved out a career that would earn him worldwide fame, fortune, and inductions into multiple wrestling Halls of Fame.
Sports – an escape from the streets for a young Paul Orndorff
Paul Orndorff was born in Winchester, Virginia but raised near Brandon, Florida, a bedroom community in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area. The community experienced rapid growth during Orndorff’s childhood in the mid-1960s, with a population that topped 30,000 around the time he reached high school.
As the population grew, sports became more of an integral part of this community that later produced many professional athletes and Olympians including former MLB pitcher Sterling Hitchcock, former NBA center Dwayne Schintzius and fellow professional wrestler Daffney, who is best known for her 1999-2001 run in WCW and TNA from 2008-2011.
Orndorff experienced a difficult childhood, growing up in the tough Clair-Mel City neighborhood and his parents divorced when he was young. After their breakup, Paul lived with his dad in a 22-foot trailer, however, the father and son didn’t have a close relationship. Without a strong parental presence, Orndorff found himself spending a lot of time on the streets while hanging out with kids nearly twice his age. It wasn’t unusual for the scrappy youngster to get into a fight with an older kid to prove his toughness.
With his sights set on eventually getting a college education, Orndorff saw sports as his only way to escape the streets and achieve that goal, so he turned to football at Dowdell Junior High School.
Even at 14, Orndorff already exhibited the athletic gifts that defined his pro wrestling career. His football coaches took notice and urged him to start working out at Smith’s Health Studio in South Tampa, which was one of the oldest gyms in the U.S. and owned by fitness guru Harry Smith.
The pair became thick as thieves which isn’t surprising when you consider Smith’s athletic background which, with the benefit of hindsight, mirrors much of how Orndorff’s athletic and professional career played out.
Like Orndorff, Smith was a star high school football player. In 1943, Smith was the quarterback at Atlanta Tech High School and led the team to one of its greatest seasons ever. After graduating, Smith joined the Navy, which led to an interest in fitness and bodybuilding. Eager to learn from the best, he regularly made the 140-mile ride from the Naval base in San Diego to Santa Monica’s famed Muscle Beach. Smith earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree in bodybuilding by pumping iron alongside A-Listers such as fitness guru Jack LaLanne, bodybuilder Steve Reeves, who famously portrayed Hercules in several films, and Joe Gold, who founded legendary fitness chains World’s Gym and Gold’s Gym.
Bitten by the bug, Smith began entering bodybuilding competitions. He was wildly successful and earned more than 30 regional titles, as well as the Junior Mr. America championship. During his early 20s, the powerful 5-8, 220-pounder became a professional wrestler and carved out a 20+-year career that began in the 1940s at the auditorium on the campus of the University of Tampa – the same school where Orndorff would eventually play college football. Known as “Georgia Boy,” Smith mostly wrestled for Cowboy Luttrell’s Championship Wrestling from Florida, frequently appearing on cards with Eddie Graham, Dory Funk, and Haystacks Calhoun. Smith worked his way up the card and eventually main-evented many events in Florida, including a Nov. 1958 show that featured him in a title match against NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion Dick Hutton.
Tampa was a regular stop in the Florida territory and Smith fell in love with the area. So, when he decided to open his own health club in 1958, Smith chose the sunny, tropical coastal city as its home. Not long after the gym opened, Smith added another bodybuilding championship to his resume by winning the Mr. Florida title. At age 38, he was the oldest contestant ever to earn that distinction.
Located just three miles from Tampa Stadium, Smith’s gym became a popular destination for bodybuilders and wrestlers who lived in, or visited, the area, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Saito, Hulk Hogan, Eddie & Mike Graham, the Malenko family, and Sailor Art Thomas to name just a few.
Smith also trained other football players including Ordnorff’s college football teammate, and future NFL star, John Matuszak, WWE Hall of Famer Bob Backlund and 3x Mr. Olympia & Mr. Universe Frank Zane. Not surprisingly, in 1976, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined the National Football League as an expansion team, Smith was hired as strength and conditioning coach.
Shattering records at Brandon High School
Under Smith’s expert guidance, Paul Orndorff built an impressive, powerful physique, a characteristic that would later define him as a wrestler. Standing at a muscular 6-feet, 195-pounds, Orndorff thrived at Brandon High School where he lettered three times in both football and track and field.
Orndorff was a natural at the field events, where his freakish strength enabled him to excel in both shot put and discus. At one meet, his shot put of 54’-9” broke all local records. In the same meet, he won a trophy with a discus throw of 154’-9”.
“As soon as Paul polishes up his form and gets the kinks out, I think he will throw the discus 170 feet and the shot 55 feet,” said Jim Summer, Brandon Eagles head track coach at the time.
Orndorff far surpassed that prediction as he once won a meet with a discus throw of 177 feet — 11 feet more than his closest competitor. At the Hillsborough Relays, he set a record for both the shot put and discus while also participating in the broad jump and relays. In 1969, he earned Brandon High School’s first state championship in the discus with a throw of 165’-7”.
On the gridiron, Orndorff was just as dominant. A star fullback, he was known as the “Brandon Bull” because of a punishing ball-carrying style that oftentimes saw him run over outmatched defenders. During his senior year, Orndorff served as team captain and led the Western Conference with 1,377 rushing yards. His outstanding performance earned Orndorff numerous All-County, All-Region, All-Conference, and All-State honors and he was named a Scholastic Magazine All-American. Orndorff was also one of five Floridians, and the first from Brandon, to be named to the All-Southern football team. His highest honor was winning the Huerta Award, which recognized the best Class AA athlete in Hillsborough County.
Orndorff’s play led to numerous scholarship offers from prestigious football programs such as the University of Tennessee and Clemson. Instead, Orndorff chose to play college football at his hometown University of Tampa and remain close to his wife and young son.
“Auburn was the first to take an interest, back when I was a junior,” Orndorff recalled. “But I was married as a junior (in high school), and Ronda and I had little Paul, so Tampa was just right in every way.”
While playing at Brandon High, Orndorff developed a close relationship with his football coach Charlie Livingstone, who became a father figure to him. Livingstone, and his wife Vonda, looked after Orndorff and provided guidance during his formidable high school years.
“He was the best coach I ever had in my life and I mean that with all my heart,” Orndorff told the Tampa Bay Times in a 2013 article. “He was like a father to me because I didn’t really have one.”
“He and Charlie were buddies,” Vonda said of Orndorff.
The College Years
While Paul Orndorff elected to play college football at the University of Tampa for geographic reasons, he was hardly making a great sacrifice in terms of the success of the program. The school’s football history dated back to 1933 and once Paul arrived, the Spartans were two seasons into playing their home games at Tampa Stadium, which had a capacity of more than 40,000. With teammates such as future professional football stars John Matuszak (the No. 1 overall pick in the 1973 draft), Leon McQuay, Freddie Solomon and Noah Jackson, and still six years before the NFL’s arrival in Tampa, the Spartans were the big game in town.
“I recruited Paul and I can tell you, even as a freshman, he looked like a man among boys,” said Fran Curci, Orndorff’s first football coach at University of Tampa in a Feb. 1986 Philadelphia Daily News article. “It looked like he was chiseled out of marble.”
From 1969-72, Orndorff again established a reputation as a punishing runner and became the team’s leading blocker as one of the core players at the University of Tampa, which already had a reputation as a giant killer. Despite a student body of only 1,300, the Spartans notched wins over established programs such as Ole Miss, Miami, and fourth-ranked Michigan.
In 1969, Orndorff finished second on the team in rushing as a freshman and carried over his high-school reputation as a punishing runner to the collegiate level, where the popular running back often amazed the fans and energized his teammates by running down the field with multiple defenders hanging onto him. During his sophomore season, Orndorff missed two weeks with a broken cheekbone and a cut that required 24 stitches to repair. He finished the season 98 rushes for 415 yards while catching 17 passes for 195 yards. As a junior, Orndorff rushed for 503 yards and four touchdowns.
In Feb. 1972, Orndorff confirmed he would finish his college career at Tampa despite rumors he might leave a year early to play pro football in Canada. Before his senior season began, Earle Bruce was hired as the new head coach after six years as an assistant at Ohio State under Woody Hayes. On his first day on the job, two offensive linemen left the team. That evening, a linebacker on the team was shot to death. While Orndorff got along well with his previous coach Fran Curci, he and Bruce mixed like oil and water.
Orndorff began his senior season as a fullback but a vacancy at tight end opened up after starter Alex Edlin injured his hand. Bruce moved Orndorff to tight end despite his leading the team in rushing at the time (79 rushes, 358 yards). While Orndorff was a physical specimen who could handle the physical demands of playing tight end and had good speed running a 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, he didn’t have the ideal size to play there.
“He (Orndorff) has all the natural attributes of a tight end,” Earle said at the time. “He’s an excellent blocker, has good hands and runs well once he catches the ball.”
Despite Earle’s explanation, Orndorff thought the position change was punishment for his two fumbles in the prior game against Louisville. The position change was unpopular, as Orndorff averaged nearly 100-yards per game prior to the move, including a 169-yard, three-touchdown effort against Eastern Michigan. The daring position change garnered newspaper headlines like “Bruce Hopes Orndorff Experiment Pans Out.”
The questionable change was not only a blow to Orndorff’s draft appeal but his ego as well. The big fullback admitted he stuck it out during the second half of his final season even though he felt the change was a blow to his dignity. Throughout his career, Orndorff excelled out of the backfield and appeared on track to eclipse his goal of 1,000 rushing yards that season.
“I felt like hanging it up a couple of times,” Orndorff said. “but my mother-in-law (Wanda Maxwell) and wife (Rhonda) wouldn’t let me.
“I would’ve never heard the end of it.”
Despite the uncertainty about the position change, Orndorff looked like a natural, as Tampa finished with a 10-2 record and earned a berth in the Tangerine Bowl, the first bowl game for Tampa since 1954. The Tangerine Bowl was a mid-major showcase pitting the Mid-American Conference champion vs. a random foe. Later, this game would be known as the Citrus Bowl and frequently hosted high-profile SEC, Big Ten, or ACC programs.
The Spartans’ bowl opponent, Kent State, was led by Don James, who would spend two more seasons there before becoming the head coach at the University of Washington where he would lead the Huskies to a national championship. On the Golden Flashes’ depth chart were future Missouri wins leader Gary Pinkel, and a heady safety named Nick Saban, now the legendary Alabama head coach.
Orndorff was the offensive leader for Tampa, scoring on a pair of touchdown catches from 15 and 35 yards. On his scores, Orndorff beat future NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, as Tampa grabbed an early 14-0 lead, on its way to a 21-18 victory.
“He (Lambert) was my responsibility and I was his in that game,” Orndorff recalled in a Feb. 1979 interview with The Tampa Tribune. “I had to block him all night. I remember too, that he played an excellent game, slowing us down a lot after the early scoring as Kent State nearly caught up with us.”
“We won because we had a team of crazed animals and I was one of them,” Orndorff said in the YouTube video, Paul Orndorff: A Wonderful Story.
Orndorff nearly earned the Most Valuable Player Award but he played both tight end and fullback in the game and received votes at each position which likely hurt him as the media awarded an MVP to both the top lineman (tight end is part of the offensive line) and top back.
In Jan. 1973, just a few weeks after the impressive Tangerine Bowl performance, Orndorff participated in the American Bowl in Tampa, which featured numerous graduating college football players. Meanwhile, Coach Bruce left Tampa after one season to become head coach at Iowa State. At the same time, Tampa was considering a de-emphasis of football, which it followed through on a few years later.
“I didn’t like Bruce at all,” Orndorff said. “He did nothing to help my football career. He soured my attitude, screwed me up after moving me to tight end after I had played for so long as a fullback. I know he’s a good coach but I still don’t like him.
“Tight end wasn’t a bad position but it didn’t help me at all as an NFL prospect to be suddenly switched to tight end.”
Orndorff was selected in the 12th round (289th overall) of the 1973 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints after finishing his college career with 376 rushes for 1,671 yards.
“They said I’d have been drafted sooner if it hadn’t been for my being moved to tight end.” Orndorff said in the Feb. 1, 1973 edition of The Tampa Tribune. “I was drafted as a fullback but by then my attitude was screwed up.”
Paul Orndorff Attempts to Go Pro in the NFL
Orndorff was the first player in the area to go pro after signing a one-year contract for a $16,000 base salary with bonus incentives for making the team and minutes played among others.
“I could’ve signed a two or three-year contract but we decided that a 1-year contract would be better because if I make it, I can get more money the next time I sign,” Orndorff said.
In June 1973, Saints training camp opened. Orndorff was just as confident about earning a roster spot with New Orleans as he was with the University of Tampa four years earlier.
“I told myself then that there was no way I wasn’t going to play,” Orndorff told The Tampa Tribune prior to leaving for a week of training with the NFL team. “And I feel the same way about the Saints going into Saints camp. I am going to play for that club somewhere.”
Orndorff left in great shape after working as an ironworker during the summer.
“I’ve done a lot of running and I’m in shape,” he said. “And, believe me, being an ironworker is hard work.”
Heading into camp, Orndorff was listed as the third running back on the depth chart and believed he’d be given every chance to make the roster.
“Coach (J.D.) Roberts is a straight shooter,” said Orndorff, who had been to two Saints rookie camps. “He says no one has a job won for himself at this point – that only the best man stays. It’s not like some places.”
Despite the chance of making an NFL roster, Orndorff instead decided to cut himself and walked out of training camp. “I have decided not to pursue a pro career anymore, at least at this time,” he said in a brief statement.
After leaving Saints camp, Orndorff returned home and out of the spotlight and sold insurance to support his family. He returned to the NFL prior to the following season after signing a contract with the Chicago Bears on Feb. 24, 1974.
“We need some running back strength,” Bears Personnel Director Bobby Walston told The Tampa Tribune in the next day’s edition. “Paul has a good chance of making our team. If we didn’t think he did, we wouldn’t be here.”
The opportunity came about when a mutual friend, Ted Dorfman, ran into Walston at the Tampa Airport as Walston was en route to the NFL meetings in Miami. Talks turned to football and Orndorff’s name came up.
“Walston asked what Orndorff’s plans were,” Dorfman said. “I said he was thinking of playing Canadian football. He said he’d like to see him and talk. We set up the meeting and you know the rest.”
After signing, Orndorff said, “I can’t get it out of my system. I love football and I think I can make it in the pros. The Saints just didn’t suit. Chicago excites me. I’m glad for the chance.
“I have a new attitude. I’m ready.”
“We’ll give Paul every opportunity,” Walston said. “We are impressed with his strength, running and blocking.”
Orndorff attended Chicago Bears training camp in Rensselaer, Ind., but he ended up walking out of there as well and returning home to Brandon. The Aug. 14, 1974 edition of The Tampa Tribune quoted his wife Rhonda as saying, “Paul has no intention of talking to the press at this time. He plans on making no comments in the near future.”
Orndorff would come clean in a Sept. 2, 1976 story in The Tampa Tribune where he admitted he withdrew from football because he “just got homesick, to tell you the truth.”
Besides, he later said, “I had accomplished everything I wanted to do in football.”
In June 1975, Orndorff returned to pro football again and signed with the Jacksonville Express of the upstart World Football League, but he was plagued by injuries. The financially strapped league folded in October, 14 games into its 20-game, second season. After the WFL folded, Orndorff returned to Brandon and worked in construction.
“The construction business went sort of flat and I was out of a job all of a sudden,” Orndorff remembered.
He dropped out of sight until he used his spare time to enter an arm-wrestling competition in Lake Wales, Florida. The powerful Orndorff won the state championship as a rookie, defeating a former champion along the way and that was after Orndorff was hospitalized for several days with pneumonia. The 5-11, 230-pound Orndorff was in tremendous shape from his football days and years of weightlifting with Harry Smith.
“God gave me a good body, I should use it – make a living with it.”
Path to the squared circle
Paul Orndorff’s path to a career in the squared circle was non-descript. He didn’t grow up a fan, so becoming a wrestler wasn’t on his radar as a professional goal. His first spark was lit one day when he was lying on the floor of his in-law’s home, watching TV, and Championship Wrestling from Florida came on. Orndorff never watched wrestling before because it looked fake to him.
After a few weeks, Orndorff made a passing comment that would unknowingly lead to the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. “I can do that,” Orndorff told his father-in-law Ross Maxwell, “I’ll see what I can do,” Maxwell said. It turned out Maxwell had a connection and gave his son-in-law a phone number to call. “It was Eddie Graham,” Orndorff said. Graham was one of the top wrestling stars of his era and eventually the owner of the Championship Wrestling from Florida territory. “I had done some wrestling with Ervin Smith at UT and liked it and I went to (Eddie) Graham about turning professional. He gave me the chance.
Three weeks later Orndorff met with Graham who said he’d give Orndorff a tryout. Three weeks after that, Orndorff showed up for his tryout, which is where he met Hiro Matsuda, Robert Fuller, Bob Backlund, Bob Roop, and Jack Brisco. Orndorff faced each of them for five minutes, one after another with no rest and after doing repeated rounds of Hindu squats, intended to tire him before the training sessions.
“Typically, I’d take (students) outside into the Florida heat and humidity and work out with them for an hour doing four or five hundred squats, pushups, sit ups, burpees and jumping jacks,” Backlund said in his biography Backlund: From All-American Boy to Professional Wrestling’s World Champion. “I would just work them out until they vomited, collapsed or quit. Most people wouldn’t survive that first workout with me, or if they did, they would never come back.
“All I did was work people out until they dropped. Some of the other guardians of the business actually made it their business to seriously hurt these people.
“You have to remember, it was back in the mid-1970s when the mystique and uncertainty about the predetermined nature of professional wrestling was still a closely guarded secret. Because of that, people were always trying to infiltrate the business and then sell the truth of what we were doing and how we were doing it to the outside world. The only way to keep that from happening was to impose the “proving ground” between the outside world and those of us on the inside.”
The last man Orndorff had to wrestle was Hiro Matsuda, a known shooter who was trained by Karl Gotch, one of the greatest shooters who ever lived. Matsuda operated a local wrestling club where he also trained future wrestling stars Scott Hall, Lex Luger, Ron Simmons, B. Brian Blair and Hulk Hogan, who famously had his leg broken by Matsuda as a test of his toughness.
When Orndorff faced off against Matsuda, the tired student stood no chance against the accomplished veteran who choked him with his famed front face lock. Orndorff was a street fighter but his opponents knew how to wrestle and some could hook him.
“When you’re tired, there’s not a whole lot you can do about it,” Orndorff said in a shoot interview with Boston Wrestling. “They hurt Hogan, and they tried to do it to me, but I was a different type of horse.
“Hiro told me to come back tomorrow. That went on for seven months. Five days a week. Hiro would show me some things but they never told me anything. I thought it but I didn’t know it. When Matsuda trained you, you were either going to make it, or you weren’t.”
A story in the book, “The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels” said Orndorff remembered the moment when Matsuda choked him and waited to get his revenge. That time arrived a few months into training when Orndorff invited his father-in-law to a session. “I got Hiro back and I mauled his ass. That’s the way I was. I wanted it bad and I wasn’t going to be denied.”
Orndorff trained a lot with Backlund and they had many matches together. Graham recorded one 15-minute match they had and was so impressed by what he saw that he sent that match to all the area high schools for promoting his shows.
“I owe everything to Eddie Graham for giving me a chance and Hiro Matsuda,” Orndorff said. “I trained with him for eight months, five days a week. It was the toughest thing I ever did in my life. They tested me. They tested my will. They knew I was an athlete but they wanted to see if I had what it took to be a professional wrestler.”
While Orndorff trained with Matsuda, he also wrestled a day or two a week in the Florida territory. His debut match was in Fort Myers, Florida against Gordon Nelson. Orndorff was wrestling draws in the opening or second matches with the likes of Jim Dalton, Leon Ogle and King Cobra. From there, Orndorff went to Memphis for eight months and then St. Louis for another eight months before moving on to Charlotte and Mid-Atlantic where he teamed with Jimmy Snuka for nearly a year. Snuka was a veteran at this time and passed along a lot of his knowledge to Orndorff, who had less than two years in the business when they began teaming. From there, Orndorff went South and wrestled for Georgia Championship Wrestling.
Orndorff bounced around before settling down in Mid-South and worked for Bill Watts for four years during two runs. However, Orndorff’s stay there was almost a short one when early in his run, Watts pulled Orndorff aside and told him things weren’t working out but he’d give him one more day.
“I went through hell that night,” Orndorff said. “The next day all hell broke loose. I started doing moves I didn’t know I knew. After a while, Watts said I could stay. That was what he wanted to see. It was working now. I could be a main event and draw money.”
Orndorff’s first Mid-South program was with Ernie Ladd, who had a great influence on him. He credits his time in Mid-South and the firm teachings of Watts for his growth as a wrestler to where he could master his craft by always putting on different matches and become a draw. Orndorff closed the famed Superdome show in a match against Bruiser Brody, which drew 33,000.
In late 1983, Orndorff went North to wrestle for the WWF, where “Mr. Wonderful” was born. Orndorff was recruited three years prior when Ladd set up a meeting for him in New York where there was talk of a program with WWF Champion Bob Backlund. However, Orndorff had a commitment with the Pensacola territory at the time, so he turned them down. He didn’t say no the second time, and the rest is history.